Faces of the homeless and a poem: a video essay
At last count, almost 1,000 people sleep outside every night in Sacramento County. That’s men and women, many of them sick, elderly and disabled, huddled in the cold under bridges, wrapped in blankets in dark alleys and tucked in ratty tents behind office buildings.
It’s a humanitarian crisis that should be impossible to ignore, particularly with recent rains. But people, convinced nothing will ever change, always seem to find a way to look past the suffering they don’t want to see.
Such was the case Wednesday night. I had joined Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty to help conduct the federally mandated Point in Time Count of homeless people. We spotted a young woman, petite and brown-haired, sitting alone outside the Tower Theatre with a battered cardboard sign.
Her hands were dirty and cold, her face bruised, but her smile was warm and her eyes genuine and kind. Young couples walked by, deep in conversation without a backward glance.
She told us she was 28 years old and had been homeless for 18 months. Most of the time she sleeps under bridges along Broadway. Taking a drag of a cigarette, she acknowledged being addicted to opioids. She wasn’t high when we spoke, “just maintaining” by taking enough to avoid going through withdrawal and getting sick. That’s a fear everyone has living on the streets. Being sick makes you as vulnerable to thieves as to death.
Asked what she wanted most, her answer was quick: rehab and housing.
Serna was only able to offer her his business card and the promise of a voucher for a motel room or a shelter bed if she called his assistant to make arrangements. She seemed truly grateful and surprised by the act of kindness.
Still, one would think that a county supervisor and a state assemblyman would be able to do more for a woman getting ready to sleep under a bridge in temperatures certain to drop into the low 40s. But this is Sacramento, where for too long there have been half-measures and inaction for reasons both big and small, real and politically manufactured.
And we wonder why so many people believe nothing will ever change.
Enter Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who, only a few weeks on the job, is clearly fed up with the status quo. He’s on a mission to provide more housing and services for homeless people, and he’s not taking “no” or “wait” for an answer. Two homeless men dying in their sleep outside City Hall will do that to a mayor.
In the past few weeks, he has worked with county supervisors to open a warming center at Southside Park, a shelter with room for 40 people near City Hall, and another shelter with room for 25 at Stanford Settlement.
There’s hope again among homeless people.
But it’s Steinberg’s latest plan, to be discussed Tuesday at the first joint city and county meeting in ages, that makes even me wonder if anything will ever change in Sacramento.
The mayor wants to recast the way public housing units are divvied up, allowing 800 homeless people a year to jump in front of the long list of poor, elderly and disabled people who have been waiting years for public housing or a rental-assistance voucher.
It’s a stopgap measure that, at first, sounds wholly unfair.
Approximately 70,000 needy people are already waiting for help from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and, right now, only about 900 vouchers and housing units open up every year. If Steinberg’s plan passes muster – first with the city council and county supervisors, and then with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – the number of vouchers and housing units available to people who aren’t homeless will shrink to about 100 for two years.
Approximately 70,000 needy people are already waiting for help from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and, right now, only about 900 vouchers and housing units open up every year.
What happens to those who have to wait a few more years for help? How much will they suffer?
Already, it’s not unusual for people on the waitlist to go from couch surfing to living under a bridge before their number comes up. The SHRA estimates that at least 30 percent of the people who have applied for help are already homeless.
Often, those people turn up at Loaves & Fishes and Maryhouse, biding their time until they can get into housing. It’s a long wait. So long that, as Supervisor Don Nottoli quipped Tuesday while being briefed on Steinberg’s plan: “You could start as a child and be a senior citizen before you’re qualified for a voucher.”
So long that Leslie Nieto, a homeless woman smoking a cigarette behind Maryhouse with pink socks and no shoes, said she has all but given up. So long that Kim Casey, who says she has been on the list for months, tries not to think about it.
“I don’t know how long. I never thought I’d be in this situation,” Casey snapped. “They don’t know how long. It’s as long as it takes.”
The fact is, we have a lot of needy people in Sacramento, and reprioritizing the waitlist for housing probably is the best bad option among a whole lot of bad options.
The real solution, of course, is to construct more permanent housing throughout the city and county. But the reality is that’s going to take months, if not years. We’re not going to build our way out of this predicament, at least not until repurposed Proposition 63 funds from the No Place Like Home initiative start to arrive in a few years.
So, if Sacramento is indeed going to embark upon this strategy, pitting poor people against poor people for limited resources, then at least let’s be cautious about it.
The city and county must be careful about how they comb the current list of people waiting for housing assistance. By law, SHRA has to notify every applicant by snail mail and ask if he or she is homeless. If so, those applicants would be given priority over any homeless newcomers applying for assistance.
But people who don’t have a place to live are notoriously hard to reach because they use outdated addresses or the addresses of shelters, which regularly purge mail. The real travesty would be if the very homeless people we are trying to help and who have been waiting for so long are booted off the list because they didn’t get a letter from SHRA.
Also critical is that the county step up and provide mental health and addiction services to anyone who receives a voucher. It’s one thing to give chronically homeless people a roof over their heads, assuming landlords are even willing to accept their vouchers in a hot housing market with plenty of options for tenants. It’s quite another to make sure they can adjust to their new lives and re-enter society.
Steinberg’s solution isn’t perfect. But, for homeless people at least, it’s a chance at change for the better.